Saturday, December 13, 2008

Blind Tasting: How Two Buck Chuck Won Its Flight

I'm part of a group of about 20 or 25 people who get together regularly to taste wine and the occasional beer. Our latest tasting was an ambitious one. We had a blind tasting with one flight of six Chardonnays and one flight of six Syrahs ranging in price from $2 to $20. As a control of sorts, Charles Shaw (Two Buck Chuck or 2BC) Chardonnay and Shiraz were included in their respective flights.

Charles Shaw is the big wild card in blind tastings of wines at the lower tier of the price spectrum. First, the variation from bottle to bottle (or bottling to bottling) is significant. One week you may find a $2 bottle that drinks like it cost triple the price. The next week you may find one that tastes overpriced. Charles Shaw is produced on large scales and undoubtedly there are also leftover lots purchased from other winemakers. Multiple bottlings from a mixture of lots will not usually yield consistent results.

Regardless, Two Buck Chuck Chardonnay and Shiraz have both fared well at times in wine competitions like the California State Fair and the International Eastern Wine Competition. I observed this phenomena on a smaller scale recently when tasting a 2BC Shiraz and McWilliams Shiraz blind. Both were unimpressive mass-produced wines, but the 2BC edged the McWilliams based on not having an overt chemical smell. The one thing 2BC has going for it is reasonable balance. The wines do tend to be a little sweet, but also don't have high alcohol levels or unpleasant flavors. They're generally innocuous, albeit unexciting.

So, how did Two Buck Chuck fare on this night? Pretty well. I had the 2BC Chardonnay ranked 1st out of 6 and actually thought it was a $16 wine. I correctly identified the 2BC Shiraz as costing $2, but I still had it ranked 3rd out of 6. To put this in perspective, though, none of the wines were exciting enough that I'd buy them to drink again. More importantly, the Charles Shaw wines were among the few wines that were reasonably balanced.

Out of the six Chardonnays, one was extremely hot and basically undrinkable. Four other Chards were in the fashionable California style with a buttery, viscous mouthfeel, a hint of residual sugar, and a subdued apple and vanilla sort of bouquet. I prefer my white wines to have more crisp acidity and citrus or floral aromatics (i.e. Sauvignon Blanc), and only one of these four, the Edna Valley 2007 Chardonnay, struck a good balance between freshness and the California style. The Two Buck Chuck was the one wine that stood out as different, and in a good way. There was no heat and the wine had a good level of acidity. The nose was citrusy and floral, and there were no overpowering "off" smells. It's now not so surprising that Charles Shaw Chardonnay could win a major wine competition. In an ocean of self-immitating bland mediocrity, Two Buck Chuck's pleasant simplicity and balance stand out.

The Syrah/Shiraz situation was pretty dire as well. Three of the wines were extremely hot, albeit drinkable. One of these, which turned out to be the Yellow Tail, also was noticably sweet. The Two Buck Chuck, despite what I noted as a "wet dog" smell, still beat these three by being relatively balanced and pleasantly fruit forward. The top two wines were nothing spectacular with the 2nd place wine being highly-oaked, yet tasty for this style and the 1st place wine being a fruit bomb without high heat. Other than the Yellow Tail and the 2BC, the Syrahs came from a local retailer who regularly pushes high alcohol fruit bombs in his newsletters. Given my preference for balance and elegance, the lack of a really enjoyable wine from this source is not too surprising.

Perhaps the most amusing result of the tasting was my 5th rated Chardonnay, which I predicted cost $2, turned out to be a $19 Chardonnay from Blackjack Ranch. I've tasted at their winery in Santa Ynez and thought the wines seemed overpriced. It turns out tasting blind backed up this impression! Rather interestingly, the most expensive Syrah, also from Santa Barbara County, came in 5th in its flight. Santa Barbara County may not be the best place to look for good value.

All in all, I think this tasting confirmed what I already suspected. I don't like California-style Chardonnay and I don't like Aussie-style Syrah. Low acidity, a buttery moutfeel and a vanilla nose just don't work for me in a white wine. Noticable alcohol (or worse, the kind that hits you in the sinuses), to my palate, is a major flaw. Clearly, I'd rather have a simple wine like a Two Buck Chuck than a more intense, extracted one if it has a ton of alcohol fumes.

Tasting notes with points assigned at the time are below. I usually assign a score after two glasses, so the "calibration" is probably a little off. In other words, wines that would have pissed me off over a longer time period by being bland or sweet weren't in front of me long enough to draw my ire. In terms of ranking amongst the flights, though, the scoring is OK.

Butterfield Station 2006 Chardonnay: Prediction, $5. Actual, $6. Hot! Nose of alcohol, apple and paint thinner. Viscous with no finish. 70 points (note: this might have been a generous score)

Thomas Fogarty 2006 Skyline: Prediction, $12. Actual, $16. Malolactic characteristics, vanilla, pear, buttery. Some smoke/tar aromas. 83 points (note: this was unoaked but did undergo malolactic fermentation)

Charles Shaw 2007 Chardonnay: Prediction, $16. Actual, $2. Tropical fruit, spice, honeysuckle. Crisp acidity. 86 points. (note: this is probably a generous score as well)

Calina Reserva 2008 Chardonnay: Prediction, $7. Actual, $7. Toejam and spice bouquet. Sweet, buttery and flabby. 79 points. (note: not sure why I didn't hate this one)

Blackjack Ranch 2006 Chardonnay: Prediction, $2. Actual, $19. Blah. Hot, sweet and grassy. 76 points.

Edna Valley 2007 Chardonnay: Prediction, $18. Actual, $12. Good funk on nose. Vanilla and spice. Balanced. 85 points. (note: probably the class of the bunch as it's nicely perched between the simple 2BC style and the buttery California style)

Yellow Tail 2008 Shiraz: Prediction, $9. Actual, $8. Alcohol. Cotton candy and metallic bouquet. Sweet. 78 points.

Laforge Estate 2006 Syrah: Prediction, $18. Actual, $11. Herb, caramel and vanilla. Lots of oak tannins. 84 points. (note: I though this was most expensive based on the amount of oak and suspect this one needs a decant or some age to let the oak settle down. Probably the best value, and typical good stuff from Southern France)

Qupe 2006 Syrah: Prediction, $4. Actual, $15. Alcohol and tar. HOT! Less oak. 71 points. (note: definitely overpriced)

Strong Arms 2006 Shiraz: Prediction, $4. Actual, $11. Hot!!! Caramel. 67 points.

Charles Shaw 2007 Shiraz: Prediction, $2. Actual, $2. Raspberry, tar and wet dog nose. Moderate tannin, good acidity and good mid-palate. 82 points. (note: definite funk on the nose, but was still refreshing compared to the previous two wines)

Woop Woop 2007 Shiraz: Prediction, $15. Actual, $12. Blackberry, clove, spice and a little alcohol. A likeable fruit-bomb. Pretty tannic. 86 points. (note: pure fruit, but pretty one-dimensional Aussie style)

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